FIONA, SCOONES’ DAUGHTER and a film producer herself, draws on a cigarette. We’re sitting in the garden of her father’s Wanstead house. “Dad was a genius,” she exults. His passing hit her hard, and she craves wider public recognition of his achievements, envisaging a television documentary about his life.
Fiona Scoones with an early Bolex 16mm.
I knew Peter Scoones, though not well. I was often the beneficiary of his considerable generosity. He spoke at underwater-photography events I was hosting. Often, despite fees being agreed up front, he would decline payment. I’d do my best to even things up on the rare occasions he wanted housings and parts from my company to cannibalise.
He also gave me underwater camera equipment for my collection. I hoped to exhibit this as part of a modest tribute, and Fiona had invited me to his workshop to discuss it.
In the early 1960s, the British Sub-Aqua Club’s Brighton & Worthing branch founded an annual diving conference, attracting star players including Jacques Cousteau. BSAC had been running only a few years.
Bernard Eaton, a young journalist, took on the responsibility of creating a newsletter for BSAC members. In time, this would become DIVER.
Eaton was enthusiastic, forward-thinking and bold. In 1965 he created an underwater photography competition to go with the conference, inviting competitors from around the globe to submit their best underwater photographs and films.
One entrant was Scoones, who had studied photography in the RAF on his National Service. In Aden he had built a housing for a cine camera from Perspex aircraft windows and made his first underwater movie, Breathless Moments.
Scoones didn’t have the money to attend the festival – until Jay Trump won the National. His winnings paid his way to Brighton, and Breathless Moments won Gold for Best Amateur Film.
TV producers took note – then shied away. Scoones had made his film on standard 8mm film, a hobbyist’s format. It was unscreenable on TV. He never shot another frame of 8mm.
For a while he worked in the printing rooms of Fleet Street, then the centre of the British newspaper industry. His mastery as a colourist would later inform his work with underwater video cameras. On the side, he continued to pursue his passion as an underwater photographer, joining up with journalist Colin Doeg to co-found the British Society of Underwater Photographers in 1966.
“The genesis of BSoUP began with Bernard,” Fiona explains. “It was his foresight in staging the underwater festivals that connected the individuals who had been out there doing their own thing. Dad always credited him for that.”
This small group of hardcore enthusiasts were making much of their own equipment. Little kit was available off the shelf; it was very expensive and often very limited, regardless of price.
Advances in underwater photography often come from adapting new land-camera technology. 35mm film allowed for comparatively small, lightweight cameras to be used for reportage. In the ’50s, rangefinder cameras such as the Leica that took 36 pictures per roll were the usual choice for surface photo journalists.
Rangefinders don’t allow for the close focusing needed for macro photography, yet many housings were built for Leicas and their clones. Focus was set by guess; pictures composed through a gunsight.
Only modest wide-angle lenses were available. For working close up with smaller subjects, the “in” system was the Rolleiflex in, ideally, a Rolleimarin housing. It took only 12 pictures per load, but had a more advanced viewfinder.
It had two lenses. The upper formed the viewfinder and was used for focusing and framing; the lower took the picture. The housing had a swing-in close-up lens for macro images. However, it lacked interchangeable lenses, so could not be used for wide-angle work.
In 1959, Nikon launched the Nikon F professional 35mm camera. It was compact, and featured reflex viewing – you viewed and focused through the taking lens. This overcame the problems of near focusing and framing issues with rangefinder cameras and, unlike the Rollei, the lenses were interchangeable.
Extreme wide-angles, game-changing for underwater photographers, could now be used, making shooting large subjects such as wrecks or working in poor vis far more effective. Macro lenses that focused steplessly from infinity to just a few centimetres away simplified fish portraiture and critter photography.
The F had another breakthrough feature. SLRs traditionally had small eyepieces that made it impossible to see all the viewfinder when wearing a dive-mask.
The F’s standard viewfinder had this flaw, but it could be exchanged for a special action-finder sporting a huge eyepiece that solved the problem.
The F’s attributes were quickly recognised by Colin Doeg. “It never mattered a jot that the early camera-housings Peter made looked somewhat agricultural,” says Doeg, now 89. “What mattered was that they handled like a dream. They were as easy to use as a Rolleimarin, the housing developed by legendary underwater explorer Hans Hass and the manufacturers of the Rollieflex camera, and I don’t know of any higher accolade than that.”
“The Nikon F was ideal for risking under water in a Perspex box, but I had neither the skill nor the equipment to make one.
I eventually persuaded Peter to make a housing for it, and the result was a great success.
“He managed to find a pentaprism somewhere, so you looked through a viewfinder, like a land camera, and it had interchangeable ports – a wide-angle one for a 20mm lens, another for an 85mm.
“As far as I know, no-one else at the time had tried a short telephoto lens under water. He thought I was out of my mind even to think of it, but he still made the special port, whereas a variety of telephoto lenses or zooms are commonplace today. It proved a delightful outfit to use.”